The October 23 declaration of Libya’s “liberation” by the National Transitional Council (NTC), the de-facto government since taking Tripoli from former dictator Muammar Gaddafi on August 21, was a showcase victory for the West’s vision of how the Arab democratic awakening should progress.
An uprising began in Libya on February 17 — part of the popular rebellion that has broken out against dictatorial regimes across the Arab world. The Gaddafi regime's brutal repression — carried out with Western-supplied weapons — meant the rising turned into a civil war.
By March 17, with the regime's forces preparing to attack the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi, a NATO intervention was sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution in the name of protecting civilian lives.
But it quickly became clear the aim was “regime change”, with NATO's airpower enabling the armed forces of the NTC — including recent defections from the regime — to win on the ground.
The democratic uprisings sweeping the Arab world — largely directed against Western-backed dictators and fuelled by socio-economic injustices imposed by the West — challenged the West’s self-appointed role as a bringer of democracy.
The appeal to NATO by the besieged NTC leadership in Benghazi presented an opportunity for the West — on the defensive — to insert itself into the Arab Spring.
In his speech declaring liberation, NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil undermined the spin when he outlined changes planned for Libya’s legal system. “I would like to give you an example,” he said. “Such a law is the law of marriage and divorce that has limited multiple wives. This law goes against the Islamic sharia law.”
The liberation celebrations were further undermined by the grisly farce surrounding the October 20 capture, torture and extrajudicial execution of Gaddafi, the NTC’s hamfisted attempts at cover-up and the squabbling between NTC factions over the dictator's decomposing corpse — then still on public display in a Misrata meat locker.
The show-trial and hanging of Saddam Hussein in occupied Iraq looked dignified by comparison. And just as with the execution of Saddam, the Western occupying forces were key participants.
When Gaddafi’s convoy tried to flee his final stronghold, Sirte, it was hit by a French air strike. Gaddafi, injured, tried to reach safety on foot but was cornered in a stormwater drain by NTC fighters.
NATO has claimed it was unaware Gaddafi was in the convoy.
Initial reports of his capture were contradicted by the NTC leadership saying he was killed in a firefight. The NTC then tried to claim he was killed in crossfire after capture.
Western leaders continued to say events were unclear, while also suggesting that if undisciplined NTC fighters had executed Gaddafi without due process, this was understandable given the brutality of his 42-year-rule.
However, more videos appeared showing graphic images of the fallen tyrant’s torture, such as a knife being shoved up his anus. Jalil promised an official enquiry.
Gaddafi’s son and henchman, Mutassim, was likewise officially killed in a firefight, despite a video showing him in NTC captivity drinking water and smoking a cigarette.
His corpse was publicly displayed alongside his father’s.
Sympathy for Gaddafi is severely undermined by the killing and torturing by his regime, but his execution is not the only indication Libya is not entering an age of peace, rule of law and respect for human rights.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said on October 24: “We found 53 decomposing bodies, apparently Gaddafi supporters, at an abandoned hotel in Sirte, and some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot.”
HRW said: “At the site where Muammar Gaddafi was captured, Human Rights Watch found the remains of at least 95 people who had apparently died that day.
“The vast majority had apparently died in the fighting and NATO strikes prior to Gaddafi’s capture, but between six and ten of the dead appear to have been executed at the site with gunshot wounds to the head and body.”
These are not the first allegations of systematic execution of prisoners of war by NTC forces. There have also been allegations of detention and execution of civilian supporters of the old regime and racist violence against Sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans.
War is an ineffective method of protecting human life and, the UN resolution notwithstanding, protecting human life was the opposite of what NATO did.
Seumas Milne wrote in the October 27 Guardian: “While the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure.
“Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months … range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.
“Of those, uncounted thousands will be civilians, including those killed by Nato bombing and Nato-backed forces on the ground. These figures dwarf the death tolls in this year’s other most bloody Arab uprisings, in Syria and Yemen.”
The specific trigger for NATO intervening in March was that the Gaddafi regime was pounding Benghazi with indiscriminate shelling and threatening violent reprisals upon retaking the city.
However, since the fall of Tripoli on August 21, this is exactly what NATO and the NTC have done to Sirte and other communities where pro-Gaddafi fighters have hung on.
Sirte, formerly a city of 100,000 people, “looks today like Ypres in 1915, or Grozny in 1995 after the Russian Army had finished with it,” the October 23 Independent said.
“It's almost without an intact building. Nearly every house has been pulverised by a rocket or mortar, burned out or riddled with bullets.”
Homes that were to some extent intact were all looted. TeleSur reported on October 12 that NTC forces were executing any Sirte resident who had a gun.
An October 12 Amnesty International report alleged routine torture of “captured al-Gaddafi soldiers, suspected loyalists and alleged mercenaries” detained by NTC forces. The October 23 Washington Post estimated the number detained as 7000.
Amnesty estimated up to half those detained were migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa, who have been persecuted since the beginning of the conflict over spurious allegations that they served Gaddafi as mercenaries.
About 1 million Sub-Saharan Africans are estimated to have fled Libya since the conflict started.
The racism has extended to Libyans of Black African appearance. “Black Libyans … are also particularly vulnerable. Dozens … have been taken from their homes, checkpoints, and even hospitals,” the Amnesty report said.
In August, pro-NTC fighters from Misrata took the predominantly Black town of Tawergha from pro-Gaddafi fighters. Today it is a ghost town.
Newsweek said on October 23: “Tawergha had more than 30,000 inhabitants, but is now ethnically cleansed. The buildings stare vacantly out toward the deserted streets. Corpses of dogs and cats lie next to laundry hung out to dry on the day the inhabitants fled.”
Graffiti announced the depopulation of the town to be the work of “The Brigade for Purging Slaves and Black Skin”. On October 23 Reuters reported that 3000 refugees from Tawergha were in a squalid displaced persons’ camp outside Benghazi. What happened to the rest of the town’s population is unknown.
The emerging picture of a human rights catastrophe is not the only reason why Libya may not turn out to be the showcase victory for “democratic” military intervention that the West was hoping for. It is also not clear to what extent the NTC can form a stable government.
Much of the leadership are former members of the Gaddafi government. Jalil was Gaddafi’s justice minister until after Gaddafi turned the military against protesters in February. Western recognition helped propel these defectors into the opposition leadership.
Militias based on defecting military units, along with others based on Islamist groups already waging armed struggle against Gaddafi, turned a spontaneous mass uprising into a civil war. NATO’s intervention completed the process.
At the rank-and-file level, militias’ primary loyalties are to their places of origin. the October 25 UAE National said: “The capital, in particular, has become a patchwork of armed fiefdoms, as wannabe power brokers backed by hometown militias made up of former clerks, students and engineers battle with each other and with natives of Tripoli for the spoils of war, a slice of the country’s wealth and a share of political power …
“Kidnappings and disappearances are the new currency in the swelling conflict, with outright shootings a tactic of last resort. The creeping mayhem is fuelled by an infusion of weapons that has turned Tripoli into a virtual armoury.”
Among the NTC leadership, the division is between the defectors from Gaddafi’s regime, such as Jalil, and the Islamists. The Islamists’ greater credibility in opposing the old regime motivated Jalil’s decision to announce legalising polygamy as the centrepiece of post-dictatorship law reform.
The defectors’ main asset was their closer ties with NATO. The past relationship between NATO and the Libyan Islamists was strained.
In 2004, British agents “renditioned” Abdul Hakim Belhaj to Libya and supervised his torture by Gaddafi’s secret police. In part due to British military intervention, he is now the military commander in Tripoli.
Jalil has requested NATO to extend its mission until the end of the year, on the pretext of preventing any remnants of Gaddafi’s forces from fleeing. However, NATO is keeping its options open.
It announced that its operations would cease on October 31. But a “senior NATO official” told the October 6 Guardian: “If it degenerates into a big fight between factions, we will have to take action. If the scale and scope is of an order that justifies Nato intervention, we will intervene.”